Advertisement

Francesca Lia Block and Nineties Nostalgia

By

YA of Yore

Has there ever been a novel with a more misleading opening sentence than Weetzie Bat? Francesca Lia Block’s 1989 debut begins:

The reason Weetzie Bat hated high school was because no one understood.

On the basis of that sentence alone—its stale familiarity, its clunky syntax (“the reason was because”), its pandering parents-just-don’t-understand gloss on adolescent alienation—you’d expect the most formulaic of young adult fiction. On the basis of that sentence alone, you probably wouldn’t keep reading. Certainly you would never guess what follows:

They didn’t even realize where they were living. They didn’t care that Marilyn’s prints were practically in their backyard at Grauman’s; that you could buy tomahawks and plastic palm tree wallets at Farmer’s Market, and the wildest, cheapest cheese and bean and hot dog and pastrami burritos at Oki Dogs; that the waitresses wore skates at the Jetson-style Tiny Naylor’s; that there was a fountain that turned tropical soda-pop colors, and a canyon where Jim Morrison and Houdini used to live, and all-night potato knishes at Canter’s, and not too far away was Venice, with columns, and canals, even, like the real Venice but maybe cooler because of the surfers.

Surprise! Weetzie Bat is not a novel of teen angst but a novel of teen delight. It’s a novel whose heroine makes a wish to a magic genie to meet “my secret agent lover man” and pages later meets the love of her life—whose actual name, with no explanation, is My Secret Agent Lover Man. It’s a novel that, halfway through, contains this sentence: “And so Weetzie and My Secret Agent Lover Man and Dirk and Duck and Slinkster Dog and Fifi’s canaries lived happily ever after in their silly-sand-topped house in the land of skating hamburgers and flying toupees and Jah-Love blonde Indians.” Weetzie isn’t too cool for school, or too deep or too smart, but simply too happy. She’s bursting with joy to be alive, right here, right now. Even the English language can hardly contain her exuberance.

This giddy excess, the sentences spilling over like triple-scoop ice cream cones, is the essence of the aesthetic that earned Block her rapturous cult following in the long nineties. By the year 2000, when I was thirteen and first discovering her, she had published a dozen books: Weetzie Bat and its four sequels, five stand-alone novels, and two short story collections. All of them were set in Los Angeles, focused on teenage girls, and written in prose that caused readers like me to lose their freaking minds. There were amateur websites where her fans swapped their favorite Block passages like songs or jewelry. My favorite Block fansite had a pastel-pink background with white text so tiny you had to squint to decipher the quotes on display:

A kiss about apple pie à la mode with the vanilla creaminess melting in the pie heat. A kiss about chocolate, when you haven’t eaten chocolate in a year. A kiss about palm trees speeding by, trailing pink clouds when you drive down the Strip sizzling with champagne. A kiss about spotlights fanning the sky and the swollen sea spilling like tears all over your legs. (Weetzie Bat)

If Los Angeles is a woman reclining billboard model with collagen-puffed lips and silicone-inflated breasts, a woman in a magenta convertible with heart-shaped sunglasses and cotton candy hair; if Los Angeles is this woman, then the San Fernando Valley is her teenybopper sister. (I Was a Teenage Fairy)

My closet contained angora sweaters low-slung hiphuggers micro minis tummy baring midriffs fluffy chubbies platforms stilettos and sandals in black black black. Only black. Obsidian. (Violet & Claire)

It’s easy to compare this kind of language to poetry, but poetry is supposed to be savored slowly; Block’s prose is best consumed like handfuls of Skittles. It’s skimmable by design, meant to dazzle at a glance, and if her sentences don’t always make sense on closer inspection, well, neither does a Monet. Block’s style flattens magic into the everyday and imbues the everyday with magic, so that it can be difficult to remember which of her novels actually have magical elements in the plot. (Does Echo have mermaids? No, its narrator just vividly fantasizes about being one—with “tiny shells” for fingernails, and skin “like jade with light shining through it.”)

Block’s style is no less gorgeous for being so easy to imitate. You can break it down to parts: run-ons and fragments, food and flowers, fairy tale imagery and pop-cultural name-dropping, hyphenation and portmanteau, strings and strings of juxtaposed nouns. Who could resist trying to replicate it? In the summer of 2001 I went to nerd camp and read aloud an essay I’d written about growing up in New York City; afterward, a girl came up to me and asked, half-admiringly and half-accusingly, “Do you like Francesca Lia Block?”

Hell yeah! Why hide it? Block’s novels found me at an age when I was at high risk of believing it was cool to be bored by everything; in the nick of time, by the grace of luck, Block made it seem cool to be swooningly, squealingly excited about everything. With her words in my head, fruit tasted sweeter; music gave me chills; the teal-green gleam of traffic lights made me weep. I had never cared for movies before, but suddenly I wanted to see every film ever made and then make my own. I began taking photographs, and my best friend, who also loved Block, agreed to pose artistically nude for me. We got into a big fight over the resulting photos, which was my fault—but it was definitely Block’s fault that I wrote a short story about it afterward, and that it ended like this: “My heart is a crystal. My mind is a crystal, hard and clear and sharp-edged and so, so cold. I am smoke. A firefly.”

I had a crush on the world. That’s the Block aesthetic, really: a heart-doodling teen-girl crush on the world. It was a craving that Block’s books awakened and agitated but never quite sated: like candy, they were gratifying in the moment but always left me wanting. One summer night I succumbed to an urge to reread all of them in a binge and came away so frustrated I had to lie down on the living room floor, pressing my cheek against the rug lest I careen into space with yearning.

But what was it I wanted? A place, I thought, a physical place—Block made me want to live “where it was hot and cool, glam and slam, rich and trashy, devils and angels, Los Angeles” (Weetzie Bat). In a 2013 interview with The Toast, Block claimed that fans often told her, “I moved to LA because of your book,” and I don’t doubt it for a second. It was entirely because of Block that after high school I went to Los Angeles to study film.

I rarely talk about the two and a half years I lived in Los Angeles before dropping out of college. I may never tell the full story, which is gratuitously violent and doesn’t pass the Bechdel test. Sometimes I tell a self-deprecating version of it: I moved to Los Angeles because I thought it would be like a Francesca Lia Block novel, and I had a nervous breakdown because it wasn’t. But that’s not exactly true. In many ways my life in Los Angeles was true to Block’s vision: palm and lemon and avocado trees, tacos at Lucy’s, sunsets ablaze from smog, hikes to the Hollywood sign, houses smothered in bright twining blossoms. For a while I drove a lemon-yellow lemon of a car, a seventies Mercedes that ran on vegetable oil whose exhaust smelled like French fries. I had a pet cockatiel and a generic boyfriend. I felt so empty I wanted to die.

*

I don’t think I’m just projecting that emptiness onto Block’s work. There’s a certain hollowness at the center of her fiction that’s been observed even by her fans—most memorably by the writer Bennett Madison, who compares Weetzie Bat (with devastating accuracy) to “an outfit comprised entirely of lavish accessories and no pants.” Rather than hold this against Block, though, Madison blames himself for outgrowing her. The Block aesthetic, he argues, is calibrated to appeal to teenagers, and on this front it achieves “perfection.” “It’s me that changed,” he insists, “not the book.”

But that isn’t quite right. Even in the early 2000s, there were teenagers who picked up on that hollowness. I know this because I was one of them, and so was the creator of that pastel-pink fansite. At some point in my teen years I reached out to that girl, and in a long exchange of AOL emails we tried to figure out what was missing from the books we otherwise loved so much. I suggested that Weetzie Bat didn’t engage deeply enough with its genie premise, that it felt like cheating to have the heroine’s three wishes come true with no dark consequences whatsoever, and also that My Secret Agent Lover Man was a ridiculous name. My correspondent disagreed. That silliness was the whole point, she said (and she was right). There was something wrong with those books, but she couldn’t put her finger on it.

We were talking around it; neither of us wanted to be the one to say it. In truth, we both knew perfectly well what bothered us about Block. It was the same thing that some of her fans loved most about her. It was the thing that launched so many of her other fansites, the ones that quoted passages like these:

I will be thin and pure like a glass cup. Empty. Pure as light. Music. (The Hanged Man)

Have you ever had the sensation of losing flesh? You begin to feel the bones of your skeleton under your flesh. Bones of the shoulders. Bones of the rib cage. Bones of the hips. It is like finding a new being, one free of desire, free of time, almost…I hear horror stories about girls who don’t eat—how their hair turns white and their gums bleed. But I feel beautiful, perfect. I am all pale bone and bone-pale flesh and pale hair and I am light. I am like some fairy thing. I dream about fairies dancing around the house with their rib cages showing like baskets under their flesh. (The Hanged Man)

Her body is very thin. She believed that being thin might get them to leave her alone, but actually the reverse was true, it made them lavish more praises upon her. (I Was a Teenage Fairy)

The therapist they sent me to once said I need to forget about the faeries and realize that I am a real live girl, that I can’t live on ice and scraps; but I’m afraid if I become real, I’ll be like my mother—bloated and sad. I’d rather chew morsels and suck flowers and wear feathers. (Violet & Claire)

I will be thin, thin, pure. I will be pure and empty. Weight dropping off. Ninety-nine … ninety-five … ninety-two … ninety. Just one more to eighty-nine. (Echo)

And so forth. (Seriously, I could go on.) This aspect of Block’s work flew completely under the radar of adults: though the above novels were widely reviewed at the time of their publication, I have yet to find a single article that even mentions their fetishization of anorexia. Meanwhile, in the “pro-ana” LiveJournal communities of the early 2000s, Block was celebrated as an icon of “thinspiration.” Sick girls shared their favorite Block quotes alongside supermodel photos, self-starvation tips, and instructions for sticking a roll of quarters up your vagina before the doctor weighs you. In retrospect, this must surely rank among the most successful dog whistles in literary history.

I have too much faith in teenage girls, and not enough in the power of the written word, to hold Block responsible for her readers’ illness. After all, if it were that simple, she would have turned me anorexic, which I never have been. Still, when I reread her novels now, I find their obsession with thinness not just morally but aesthetically disappointing. It has a neurotic, blinkering effect—you wonder what her heroines might have the freedom to think about if they weren’t so fixated on their own bodies.

The same goes for the boyfriends: every Block novel features a straight male love interest so dull and undercooked it feels perverse, like a desperate distraction from something. My Secret Agent Lover Man has no personality outside his name. Cherokee Bat’s boyfriend, the mixed-race Raphael Chong Jah-Love (yeah, I know), has no personality outside his skin color, which is compared so frequently to various Hershey’s items it borders on product placement. Echo ends up with a guy who has no name, no dialogue, no characteristics at all beyond angel wings that may or may not be taped on (it’s ambiguous). Block’s prose can bamboozle you into believing that Los Angeles is paradise and anorexia is bliss—but when it comes to heterosexuality, it never manages to convince.

On the other hand, there’s Violet in Violet & Claire, seeing Marilyn Monroe on TV for the first time: “I just sat there with my hands stretched out trying to touch her. Why was she just electric static? I thought she’d be as warm and silky as she looked.” There’s Laurel in The Hanged Man, missing her best friend: “I think about Claudia’s curls—how I would hide in them the way I used to bury my face in flowers.” There’s Echo with her friend Nina: “We laughed, sipping the rice wine that seemed to shine in our throats. Nina kept leaning up against me, giggling, her hair getting in my face. I felt her breasts pressing … When we left the bar Nina leaned on me, hot skin and cold red silk.” And then, later, her friend Valentine: “I imagined her lying beside me under the antique wedding dress, her hair tickling my lips, her scent like all the pink and red flowers. I wanted to beg her but I didn’t say anything.”

But Violet and Claire, who obsess over each other to the point that a school bully calls them “dykes,” spend most of their novel fighting over a forgettable guy. Laurel and Claudia have an implied threesome with Laurel’s forgettable boyfriend, then never see each other again. Nina turns out to be a vampire, either metaphorically or literally (it’s ambiguous). Echo interprets her desire for Valentine as a desire to be Valentine: “Dreamed of kissing her lips, as if that might let me become who she was.” (We’ve all been there, Echo.) Echo ends her novel in mid-intercourse with that nameless, featureless man. “This is me becoming holy human and my own self,” she exults, unconvincingly.

Block’s fiction abounds with female beauty, with gay men and trans women and blink-and-you’ll-miss-them background lesbians, with earnest calls for tolerance and love—and yet the possibility of her heroine loving another girl seems never to enter her mind. Queerness comes off as a wonderful thing that has nothing to do with oneself or one’s own desire to kiss girls—a desire that’s nowhere and everywhere in these books, constantly rationalized into nothing (it’s friendship, it’s jealousy, it’s really about a boy) even as it keeps throbbing. It’s a paradox that’s distinctly of its era and painfully familiar to bisexual women of my generation, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many of us grew up loving Block. If there’s such a thing as bi culture, then Block, with her plausible-deniability high-femme eroticism, is one of its patron goddesses—for better or for worse.

How strange, looking back, that these books opened our hearts to joy, only to slam shut and close in on themselves just when it mattered most. How dispiriting it feels to pause on the precipice of love—for women, for imperfect bodies, for oneself—only to shrink away into bad boyfriends and bones. How sad, in the end, to choose prettiness over beauty.

*

Block continues to publish young adult fiction to this day, and a Weetzie Bat movie is reportedly in the works. As far as I can tell, though, the cult of Block is not self-regenerating. It’s been well over a decade since I could find Weetzie Bat—let alone Violet & Claire, my old favorite—on a bookstore shelf (I always check). The well-stocked Iowa City Public Library carries almost no Block books. An informal survey of my grad school classmates suggests that even the most bookish women under the age of thirty are unfamiliar with the name Francesca Lia Block, unless they encountered it in the self-consciously nineties-nostalgic Rookie magazine. She remains widely beloved, analyzed, and interviewed—but mostly by her original generation of fans, now grown, still keeping the faith.

It pains me to see Block’s work reduced to a nineties fetish object along with Violet’s low-slung hip-huggers; it was always so much more than that. The rose-tinted nostalgia treatment can be as demeaning, in its own way, as a vicious takedown, and Block deserves neither. Like anything associated with teenage girls—like one’s own former teenage-girl self—she ought to be taken more seriously. She was an important author.

And to me, at least, she still is. Having just reread a dozen of her books to write this essay, I’m left just as ravenous and sugar-crashed as I was at age fourteen, just as ready to throw myself to the floor in frustration. I can’t stop needing her to be different, wanting her to be better, even as I’ll always be grateful for the beauty she showed me. I will never stop wishing for more from Francesca Lia Block. I love her, even now, the way I love the world.

 

Read earlier installments of YA of Yore here.

Frankie Thomas is the author of “The Showrunner,” which received special mention in the 2013 Pushcart Prize Anthology. Her writing has also appeared in The Toast, The Hairpin, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.